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Tiananmen activist says anti-COVID protests herald new era for China

Wang Dan, a former student leader of the 1989 pro-democracy Tiananmen Square protests, speaks at a press conference at the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Japan in Tokyo, on Dec. 1, 2022. (Photo courtesy of the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Japan/Kyodo)

TOKYO (Kyodo) -- A former student leader of the 1989 pro-democracy Tiananmen Square protests said Thursday that the recent eruption of demonstrations against China's "zero-COVID" policy and the government, in a rare display of public anger has moved the country into a "new era."

    Wang Dan, who lives in exile from China, spoke in the wake of protests that emerged over the weekend across the country, including a demonstration by about 1,000 people in central Beijing early Monday. Some protestors have made rare calls for President Xi Jinping and the Communist Party to step aside.

    Speaking at the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Japan in Tokyo, Wang said the protests moved him, and he felt the "spirit of 1989 has come again," and despite possible crackdowns, the demonstrations will have a "significant influence on Chinese society" that show it has "headed into a brand new era."

    "The most important impact that the protests have achieved is communication," Wang said. "Due to strict censorship, Chinese citizens cannot openly discuss and exchange their opinions on political issues, and now they can do it."

    While acknowledging similarities between 1989 and today, including a large number of students on the frontlines, he said the latest demonstrations were "an awakening" because some have started calling for regime change, whereas activists at Tiananmen did not do the same until the final stages of the protests.

    Many recent rallies across China were triggered by a deadly fire on Nov. 24 in Urumqi, the capital of the far-western Xinjiang region, and subsequent demonstrations in the city, with speculation growing that lockdown measures may have hampered evacuation and rescue efforts.

    The unrest presents a new challenge to Xi's leadership just as he won a norm-breaking third five-year term as chief of the ruling Communist Party in October.

    Wang said the timing was a "heavy blow" to the president and that he may eventually choose to crack down on protests because he "cannot afford to lose face."

    In the days since the demonstrations, Chinese authorities have sought to ease some coronavirus measures, including in parts of Guangzhou and Beijing, while maintaining the zero-COVID policy.

    Wang was also among 47 activists to sign a letter to the Chinese military and police on Tuesday calling on them "not to repeat the tragedy" of soldiers indiscriminately firing on students in Tiananmen Square in 1989 and urging them to listen to the people.

    Students rallied to call for democracy and government action against rampant corruption in 1989 after the death of Hu Yaobang, who was sacked as general secretary of the Communist Party two years earlier for his liberal leanings. Support for the protests grew as people poured into Tiananmen Square.

    The protests defied martial law, declared in late May that year, and inspired big rallies across China. But from the night of June 3 through the early hours of June 4, troops and armored vehicles cleared the square by force, killing hundreds of protesters and bystanders.

    Intent on maintaining its firm one-party rule, the Communist Party justified the 1989 killings by declaring it was necessary to quell political unrest. Open discussions about the incident remain taboo in China.

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